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High AZ Temps Signal 'Growing Health Crisis'

The numbers of heat-related deaths have grown in Arizona in tandem with more summer temperature extremes in the past decade. (Adobe Stock)
The numbers of heat-related deaths have grown in Arizona in tandem with more summer temperature extremes in the past decade. (Adobe Stock)
August 7, 2019

PHOENIX - The rising number of annual heat-related deaths in Arizona is approaching those from such disasters as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes in other states, according to public-health officials.

With high temperatures between 110 and 115 degrees on many summer days, fatalities and serious injuries - particularly among the vulnerable homeless, low-income and senior populations - are hitting record levels across the state.

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director of the Maricopa County Public Health Department's disease-control division, which encompasses the metro Phoenix area, said the number of heat-related deaths has grown in the past decade.

"We are seeing a remarkable number of individuals who are dying from heat-related causes this year," she said. "We're already at 12 confirmed, and we have 82 individuals under investigation for heat-related deaths. At this time last year, we had seven, with 69 under investigation."

In Arizona, heat-related deaths grew from 200 in 2008 to almost 400 by 2018. Sunenshine said those numbers may be low, since it can take weeks or months for coroners to determine if a person's death is attributable to heat. Average highs between June and September are around 106 degrees, but the number of extreme days - 110 or higher - grew from just a few in in 2008 to almost 30 last year.

Weather officials issue extreme heat alerts when forecasts call for temperatures of 110 or higher. Sunenshine said it's particularly dangerous on those days for some groups.

"People who have chronic medical conditions or especially seniors," she said. "We want to check on our neighbors, make sure that their air conditioning is functioning. Sadly, about a quarter of our heat-related deaths occur indoors, and that most often affects the elderly."

She added that cities such as Phoenix and Tucson experience the so-called "heat island" effect.

"The less green trees and grass and shade that you have in the area, the hotter the area will be and the more heat that is retained overnight," she said, "and it's that lack of cooling off during the nighttime that can really wear on people."

She said climate change appears to be driving the record number of extreme heat days.

Information on heat deaths is online at azdhs.gov.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ